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Robert Hedlund's plan to restore happy hours in Massachusetts would endanger lives

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  October 14, 2011 05:07 PM

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Happy hours were banned by people who wanted to save lives. Now they could be here again, on behalf of people willing to put lives at risk.

That’s harsh, right? But if Massachusetts reinstitutes happy hours, it’s better to understand reality than to be lulled by euphemism: Serving up free alcohol or cheap, jumbo drinks could lead to very unhappy results.

The possibility is an outgrowth of legislation set to authorize expanded gambling in Massachusetts. The Senate version includes an amendment that erases the happy hour ban. State Senator Robert Hedlund of Weymouth — who owns a restaurant — proposed the amendment that would allow restaurants and bars to operate by the same rules as casinos. In leveling the playing field, the amendment also spreads the danger.

Casino operators love doling out free drinks because they produce drunks who continue gambling. But losing money is only part of the risk. If a drunk gets into a car, lives can be lost. That’s what prompted the happy-hour ban in 1984 when Michael Dukakis was governor, making Massachusetts the first to impose such a state-wide restriction.

“I’ve heard all the horror stories I’m going to listen to,” George R. McCarthy, chairman of the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, said at the time.

One horror story involved a victim from Hedlund’s hometown. In 1983, a 20-year-old Weymouth girl named Kathleen Barry was killed after being dragged underneath a car driven by a friend, also 20. The friend had downed seven to nine mugs of beer, including one free mug she was given when she arrived at the Braintree restaurant and two more she drank after identifying songs played by a DJ.

“At the suggestion of the disc jockey, she chug-a-lugged the second beer and was given a third beer as a prize for chug-a-lugging,” the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission said after investigating the case. She got another free mug after that.

“Mike Dukakis was wrong about some things,” said Michael McCormack, a lawyer and former Boston city councilor, who has represented bar owners in negligence cases brought against them as a result of alcohol-related deaths and injuries. “But he was right about banning happy hours.

In Massachusetts, if a person who is visibly intoxicated is served alcohol, the bar or restaurant can be liable for any harm that results. Bar owners go to great lengths to train employees to spot intoxicated customers, and some insurance companies require the training, said McCormack.

But, if a bar is asking employees to be on the lookout for drunks, while it’s also handing out free tequila, isn’t there a mixed message in the mixed drink?

People are supposedly smarter today about drinking and driving. But the more they drink the less smart they get.

Massachusetts police chiefs think the return of happy hours is a bad idea. “There was a reason these laws were changed in the ‘80s” Lowell Police Superintendent Kenneth Lavalle told the Lowell Sun. "There was a concern about driving under the influence. It continues to be a problem today."

This state has moved towards holding drunk drivers more accountable. Melanie's Law, signed by then-Gov. Mitt Romney in 2005, required an ignition interlock device for anyone convicted of two or more drunken-driving offenses, and increased suspension for motor-vehicle manslaughter from 10 years to 15 years. So, maybe it’s not coincidence that Massachusetts has the second-lowest rate of drunken-driving deaths in the nation.

Expanding gambling is one thing. Do lawmakers and Governor Deval Patrick really want to gamble on lives by giving their blessing to happy hours?

Twitter: @Joan_Vennochi

Aram Boghosian for the Boston Globe: A man suspected of driving drunk is given a sobriety test at a State Police checkpoint in Raynham this spring.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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